Can New Zealand's National party reinvent itself under Todd Muller? | Jennifer Curtin

The new opposition leader must win back centrist voters, just four months out from the election

It was never a foregone conclusion, but with three poll results in the last three weeks putting National’s support at around 30%, the chances of Bridges remaining as leader were increasingly slim. By 1pm on 22 May, the parliamentary National party had sealed his, and deputy Paula Bennett’s, fate.

The new leader, Todd Muller, now faces the unenviable task of clawing back the centre right voters who appear, for now, to have deserted National in droves.

Was this a necessary spill so close to an election? And will National be rewarded as a result? While commentators claim that the poll results were devastating, those with a long memory will remember that National has been here before.

Bill English was polling in the mid-20s before the party’s loss in the 2002 election. Before that, both Jim Bolger (in 1996) and Jenny Shipley (in 1999) had also experienced polls in the low 30s three months out from an election (although both were prime ministers). In none of these three cases were the leaders rolled.

To be fair, 2020 is a completely different time.

Voters worldwide appear much less tolerant and trusting of politics, and opinion polls drive parties and the media to distraction, in ways not seen 30 years ago. Across the Tasman, these two factors have propelled a cycle of churning through political leaders, on both the left and the right, in an effort to hold onto power.

In New Zealand, Bridges, and now Muller, are up against a leader of the left who is doing for Labour what Key did for National. When National won 45% the vote in 2017, but was unable to form a government, there was a gnashing of teeth, followed quickly by a steely eyed determination to be “by far the strongest opposition party that the Parliament has seen”.

And the strategy seemed to be working. Even after English’s departure, the National base remained loyal – with National regularly ahead of Labour in the polls.

But this success came with a risk. Because National had lost only 2% of the vote and three seats in 2017, this was a very large opposition, unlike any seen before under the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system. Of the 55 MPs elected in 2017, 15 are list MPs, drawn from as far down as 42nd on National’s list. And for the past two-and-a-half years, these 15 MPs were no doubt satisfied their chances of being returned in September 2020 (possibly to government) were pretty good.

This represented a false sense of security and perhaps just a little hubris. The chances of National continuing to hold 45% of the seats at the 2020 election were going to be tough. But the shock of a 15-percentage-point decline in support was clearly too much for the party, and no doubt for many of the list MPs in particular, including senior opposition members Paul Goldsmith and Michael Woodhouse, who risk losing their positions should National’s stocks not improve.

Can Todd Muller and his deputy Nikki Kaye save National from this prediction of decimation in four months time? Most commentators recognise that this leadership team has reach – Muller represents the rural, somewhat conservative, traditional side of this broad church that is the National party, while Kaye appeals to the urban liberal green-leaning National voter, and she has considerable ministerial experience, which will offset Muller’s lack thereof.

Their first job is to win back centrist voters – from Labour but also from ACT. Support for ACT has crept up incrementally from 2017, from 0.5% to close to 2%. But this increase has come at the expense of National supporters who presumably thought that National would need a partner after the next election.

Some centrist voters are likely those who left Labour for Key and are slowly returning “home”. But National’s base also seems to have shifted away under Bridges. Key, and Joyce, excelled over three election cycles at securing both the electorate and party vote from their supporters. Indeed, only a small percentage of National voters split their vote in 2017, so Muller needs to rekindle that loyalty.

He has the capacity to do this. He is a long-standing party member with strong networks in business and the rural sector; he stood out as a clear communicator in negotiating an agreement on the zero carbon bill with the Greens. And it is important to remember that while “preferred prime minister” is what the polls measure, this includes more than likability, which Ardern has in spades.

Our New Zealand election study shows voters also want to know their leader is competent and trustworthy, with a dash of likability – this was why English proved popular. So Muller, and Kaye, together have a real chance at rebuilding National’s support to within 40% by September and save the careers of their once-senior colleagues.

However, their second job might not be so easy. We do not yet know how many supported Muller as opposed to Bridges, and if it was close, and there remains some resentment amongst Bridges supporters, there is a risk of white-anting.

That said, the party’s coffers look healthy, and the donations may continue to flow if National under Muller’s leadership can present itself, once again, as the preferred economic manager for a post-Covid 19 recovery. It certainly now has nothing to lose.

Jennifer Curtin is professor of politics and public policy at the University of Auckland.

Jennifer Curtin

The GuardianTramp

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